30 August 2009

High price of liberty begins to pay off for East Timor

August 30, 2009 The Age High price of liberty begins to pay off for East Timor Damien Kingsbury - A decade after the devastation that surrounded the vote for independence, there are some promising signs.

TODAY is 10 years since the people of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia. Following 24 years in which more than a quarter of the population was killed or died as result of the occupation, the vote of almost 80 per cent in favour of independence was not surprising.

What was extraordinary was that in what had become a war zone, 98.6 per cent of registered voters turned out.

Heavily armed Indonesian police and soldiers stood at polling centres. The Indonesian army's proxy militias strolled in and out intimidating voters.

Yet wearing their best clothes, the East Timorese defiantly voted.

By early afternoon on August 30, the first polling station, at the village of Ritabou, was already in flames. Thus ended the brief ''truce'' that divided the violence leading up to the ballot and that which followed it.

An orgy of violence and destruction spread from there, engulfing whole communities, a whole people.

Officially, about 1400 people were said to have been killed across East Timor, although many more have never been accounted for. Unofficially, the UN Serious Crimes Unit estimated that 3000 to 4000 people were murdered.

In a clever strategy of intimidation, ballot observers and UN staff had been directly threatened but rarely harmed. Yet the day after the ballot, my house in Maliana was in flames. At one of 13 militia roadblocks between Maliana and Dili, a screaming militia member affected by drugs put an M-16 rifle to my head.

East Timor began to burn more furiously, with the police, sent under a deal with the UN to protect it, standing by and watching, or helping, it burn.

After August 30, our observer group began leaving as they could, the last main group going out on September 4 on the deck of a refugee-filled cargo boat, leaving the port under gunfire as the flames spread.

It was only the strength of Australian public feeling that forced the reluctant Howard government to form the international force Interfet. After the TNI (Indonesian military) and militias withdrew across the border, the first months were devoted to keeping people alive. The hard work started after that.

In the lead-up to the ballot, the expectations of independence had been impossibly high. The reality disappointed, as it so often has after a colonial power departs, taking administrative capacity, jobs and money with it.

More than 70 per cent of the country was burnt and, beyond a few roads, there was no infrastructure left to speak of.

After promising the people of East Timor that it would not leave, the UN returned to begin building a new country. It brought very mixed skills and interest and consequently produced mixed results. As local and returning elites vied for greater political control, the UN was only too happy to hand over power and then withdraw too early.

The result was a fledgling government with limited capacity faced with growing disenchantment and dissent. In the face of dissent, the government increasingly trended towards authoritarian responses. The people of East Timor had, however, not voted out Indonesia to replace it with domestic authoritarianism.

But the party of government, Fretilin, had wrapped itself in the cloak of independence. The stage was set for a split, which in 2006 almost plunged the fledgling country into civil war.

Having left too soon, the international community returned, elections scheduled for 2007 were held and the government was changed. Despite some post-election violence, the situation increasingly settled.

Particularly in 2008 and into 2009, the economy has grown, largely due to government spending on the back of oil receipts. The drought that had plagued recent years ended and the markets are again full of food. Public works and infrastructure development is visible, notably in Dili.

A sense of security and stability has returned.

East Timor continues to face obstacles. It takes many years to turn around illiteracy and limited health care, and economic growth, while good at 13 per cent, is off a very low base.

But East Timor is not a failed state and is decreasingly likely to become so.

It has avoided the post-colonial challenge of slipping into authoritarianism. There have been elections and democratic consolidation. Its people have embraced electoral politics, voluntarily turning out for elections in numbers equal to compulsory voting in Australia.

East Timor is a small country and still vulnerable, but after the Indonesian occupation, and the events of 1999, its people are beginning to enjoy at least some of the fruits of political freedom.

Associate professor Damien Kingsbury works at Deakin University's School of International and Political Studies.

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